Hal David’s lyrics expressed a sentiment shared by many of the optimistic generation who hadn’t yet felt their ideals vanquished by the reality of Vietnam and growing dissension under the White House of President Richard M. Nixon. David’s words were captivatingly sung by folk artist Shawn Phillips, signed at the time to the A&M label, and set to a haunting melody from Burt Bacharach that’s removed from both the exuberance of “I Say a Little Prayer” and the soul of “Walk on By.” Bacharach and David composed the song for producer Ross Hunter’s 1973 motion picture Lost Horizon, described at its release by The New York Times’ Vincent Canby as a “big, stale marshmallow.” Canby continued to call out the film’s “surprisingly tacky…appearance,” asserting that “the second rate auspices just about destroys everyone in the film, with the possible exceptions of [Peter] Finch, [Bobby] Van and Michael York.” And Canby was one of the kinder critics. Lost Horizon became one of the costliest flops and most notorious disasters in film history. What happened? Where did it go wrong?
Yet against all odds, Lost Horizon is finally arriving on DVD on October 4 courtesy of Columbia Pictures’ MOD (Made on Demand) DVD-R program. But this won’t be a bare-bones release; the studio is promising that it will be “packed with extras” and fully remastered; in other words, the kind of treatment usually reserved for a classic, cult or otherwise. If the time hasn’t come and likely won’t for Lost Horizon to be reappraised as a cinematic masterpiece, we can still appreciate it without irony for its one unmistakably terrific element: its music by Burt Bacharach. Today’s Friday Feature celebrates the music of Lost Horizon.
The saga of Lost Horizon began in 1933 with James Hilton’s novel, imagining an idyllic Shangri-La tucked away in a Tibetan valley where illness, age and poverty are unknown. One year later, after the success of Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips, readers discovered Lost Horizon, and it became a bestseller. In 1937, Frank Capra adapted it into a well-regarded film version starring Ronald Colman, which won two Academy Awards out of seven nominations, and in 1939 the paperback edition of the original Hilton novel became Pocket Book No. 1. Both the novel and Capra’s film can be interpreted as explicitly anti-war; when a 1942 re-release of the film cut one of Colman’s speeches in which he mocked war, Capra balked.
The story remained in the public consciousness, and was first musicalized in 1956 with a book and lyrics credited to Hilton (who had died in 1954), Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (the team behind Auntie Mame) and music by Harry Warren (42nd Street). Despite this pedigree and a cast including Jack Cassidy, Alice Ghostley and Carol Lawrence, the musical expired after a mere 21 performances at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre, now the home of Mamma Mia!. Hallmark Hall of Fame resuscitated the Warren/Lawrence/Lee musical for television in 1960, and Ghostley even reprised her role. But Shangri-La (with song titles including both “Lost Horizon” and “Shangri-La”) was destined for obscurity. The next chapter of the Lost Horizon story, though, would make a splash in every respect. Hit the jump, and I’ll meet you in 1973! Bring your popcorn; we’ve provided the clips!
Enter Ross Hunter. One of the most successful producers in Hollywood, Hunter was famous for commenting, “The way life looks in my pictures is the way I want life to be. I don’t want to hold a mirror up to life as it is.” The acclaimed producer of Pillow Talk, Airport, Imitation of Life and Thoroughly Modern Millie was determined to preserve the glamour of old Hollywood even as the New had taken the town by storm. To that end, he envisioned a big-budget, all-star, all-singing, all-dancing Hollywood extravaganza. Sensing the relevance of the story to the Vietnam War era, his film would be a remake of Columbia’s Lost Horizon. It again would tell the story of a party of travelers who literally discover paradise and then must decide whether to return to the realities of the outside world or remain forever in Shangri-La.
Hunter signed pop hitmakers Burt Bacharach and Hal David to score the film. Both Academy Award winners, Lost Horizon would be their first movie musical. It followed their 1968 Broadway triumph Promises, Promises; prior to that, they had first explored writing for characters with the 1966 ABC television musical On the Flip Side, starring Rick Nelson and Joanie Sommers. For the screenplay to Lost Horizon, Hunter enlisted Larry Kramer, an Academy Award nominee for his 1969 Women in Love based on the D.H. Lawrence novel. (Kramer would go on to write The Normal Heart, chronicling his experiences at the outset of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s.) Hunter planned for a first-class production, to be helmed by director Charles Jarrott (Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary, Queen of Scots). Bacharach was enthused about the project, as he told The New York Times: “The idea of the picture is very close to me. Imagine! Somewhere in Tibet, in the middle of those mountains, there is a place called Shangri-La. Where you can live forever – almost. And you can stay healthy! And there is love! And peace! It’s exactly what everybody wants today.” Hal David echoed his collaborator’s comments: “The picture deals with the hope for things wonderful and people getting along and finding a peaceful solution and a happy solution to life. And that kind of philosophy has been very dear to me and very close to me all my life.”
When the time came to cast the film, an actor’s vocal and choreographic prowess oddly didn’t seem to be taken into account. Of the lead performers, musical veterans Sally Kellerman (the ill-fated Broadway musical Breakfast at Tiffany’s), James Shigeta (the film of Flower Drum Song) and Bobby Van (No, No, Nanette, On Your Toes) performed their own songs. The Hollywood practice of dubbing extended to Peter Finch, Olivia Hussey and Liv Ullmann, whose own vocals were replaced by those of Jerry Whitman, Andra Willis and Diana Lee, respectively. Charles Boyer was enticed to appear in the non-singing role of the High Lama, and John Gielgud and Michael York appeared in non-singing parts, too. Of the leads, Van evinces the most consistent charm and panache. In his role as a third-rate song-and-dance man, he proved that he was first-rate, even able to transcend the hackneyed choreography for his big musical moments.
Lost Horizon‘s March 1973 premiere was such a big deal in Hollywood that Governor Ronald Reagan was persuaded to return to his roots to attend, and the picture was selected for a Royal Command Performance in the United Kingdom. But it was quickly savaged by the critical community, with Pauline Kael and Judith Crist among its many vocal detractors. Its camp excesses couldn’t help but leave most cold, but it inspired Bette Midler’s oft-quoted quip, “I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical!” John Simon, the famously acidic critic of both stage and screen, commented that Lost Horizon “must have arrived in garbage rather than in film cans.” The folks at FilmThreat.com may have put it best, though, and most accurately: “Lost Horizon is not the jaw-dropping catastrophe that many people insist it is, nor is it the camp classic that generates therapeutic cynicism for its audience. It is actually more of a sincere but inert bore, a good idea that went nowhere strictly because it lacked the imagination to fly. ”
It was immediately felt that the film was overlong; in fact, the first musical sequence doesn’t occur until around 40 minutes into the film. Some 20+ minutes of footage were cut after the premiere, including the unforgettable “Fertility Dance” (!) sequence which Vincent Canby called “pricelessly ill-suited.” But despite the film’s critical drubbing, hopes were high for the Bacharach/David score. The Times critic opined, “The music written by Burt Bacharach is often pleasant, but it’s too sophisticated for both the movie and the lyrics, written by Hal David.” Mr. Canby was onto something there, as Bacharach indeed crafted a typically lush and sophisticated score not always matched by David’s lyrical contributions.
Little did most observers know that the relationship between Burt Bacharach and Hal David had been on increasingly rocky ground, particularly as Bacharach remained involved in the film’s day-to-day production as composer of the score, long after David had turned in his lyrics. The award-winning duo would dissolve their partnership soon after the film’s release, amidst lawsuits and general acrimony. Bacharach explained to NPR in 2010 when asked why they stopped writing together: “I think we got involved with a motion picture that probably never should have gotten made. Making a movie musical with new songs — it’s not like you can go to Boston to try it out. The film is shot and the idea that you can replace a song and reshoot a scene [is not there]. The film was called Lost Horizon, and it presented its own set of problems and, I must say, I wrote the score and the background score as well as writing the songs with Hal…There’s a song in the middle of the movie called ‘If I Could Go Back’ that Peter Finch’s character sings. And it’s about his longing — whether he stays in Shangri-La or goes back to England. He has a chance to do either one. And when we made the song for that particular soundtrack, it sounded great. I thought, ‘Jesus, it’s beautiful.’ And then when you see it in the movie, you’re sitting there and you just don’t care whether he goes back or stays. It doesn’t make any difference. You don’t care about him. … I didn’t want to write anymore. Period. I drove up to the opening-night theater having just read the Los Angeles Times review, and I just wanted to get out of town. And I wanted to go down to Del Mar — I had a little beach house there — and hide and not write and just play tennis every day.”
The Bell Records soundtrack was moderately more successful than the film, peaking at No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 200. Its reputation continued to grow over the years. (Even today, the soundtrack has a 4.6 out of 5.0 average customer rating as listed on Amazon.com!)
Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Lost Horizon: Original Soundtrack (Bell Records LP 1300, 1973)
- Introduction/Lost Horizon
- Share the Joy
- The World Is A Circle
- Living Together, Growing Together
- I Might Frighten Her Away
- The Things I Will Not Miss
- If I Could Go Back
- Where Knowledge Ends (Faith Begins)
- Question Me an Answer
- I Come to You
- Lost Horizon (Single Version) (A&M single 1405, 1973 – appeared as a bonus track on Razor & Tie CD RE 2152-2, 1997)
Artists were initially clamoring to cover the film’s songs; Tony Bennett recorded both “If I Could Back” and “Living Together, Growing Together.” The 5th Dimension also recorded “Living Together,” scoring a minor hit in the process. “The Things I Will Not Miss” was attempted by Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye for their 1973 duets album Diana and Marvin, though it was dropped from the final LP and didn’t resurface until the 2001 CD reissue. Andy Williams took a shot at an overwrought arrangement of “If I Could Go Back,” while Herb Alpert tackled “I Might Frighten Her Away” sporting a string arrangement by Bacharach himself. Also on A&M, The Sandpipers brought their smooth vocals to “The World is a Circle.” Ed Ames devoted a large chunk of an entire LP to the score, and Disneyland Records even released an LP containing three songs from the score alongside classics by Frank Loesser, Harold Rome and Rodgers and Hammerstein! 101 Strings got into the act with an instrumental LP dedicated to the movie. Another studio version came from Pickwick Records credited to The Shangri-La Orchestra & Chorus featuring The Mountain Children Singers! (Four soloists are also named: Tony Cooper, Mary Reynolds, Adrienne Matson, and Steve Bolin.) Shawn Phillips’ single version of the title song, which he performed in the film, reached No. 63 pop and fared slightly better on the AC chart, hitting No. 20. Just below, you’ll find a rare performance of Bacharach himself singing “Lost Horizon.”
The music has endured, and even added to the cult cinema mystique of Lost Horizon. When the Bell Records soundtrack was finally released on CD in 1997 by Razor and Tie, Lisa Sutton contributed unfortunately sarcastic liner notes. Sutton wrote of the “underwhelming tunes,” insisting that “the show-stopping musical numbers ‘The World is a Circle’ and ‘Living Together, Growing Together’ sound like the Von Trapp family on medication, and one can’t help but feel that Peter Finch’s solo numbers may be what led him to being ‘mad as hell and not going to take it anymore’ a couple of years later (in the movie Network).” I’ll give Sutton a pass on describing the movie itself as “this astonishing monument to bad cinema” and even “possibly the worst disaster in film history,” but not on her misguided assessment of the movie’s songs.
Hal David later reflected with candor, “Lost Horizon was a film that just didn’t work. And the score suffered because of it, in my opinion,” though he acknowledged, “I think we did some beautiful things for it. ‘Where Knowledge Ends, Faith Begins’ is a song I always loved. ‘The World is a Circle’ is becoming a little bit of a standard…But if the picture doesn’t work, nothing works.” Bacharach agreed: “There are some good songs that came out of Lost Horizon. ‘If I Could Go Back’ is a pretty terrific song. ‘Living Together’ is okay. ‘The World is a Circle’ – that’s a good one. On their own, these songs were very good, but when you saw the movie…if you have a dog picture, the songs are not gonna fly.”
Still, the soundtrack offers those “very good” songs divorced from the onscreen action. Unfortunately it lacks any evidence of Bacharach’s fine underscore, which has never been commercially released and only is available as an isolated track on the 1992 laserdisc. (The inclusion of this music-only track on the DVD would be a major bonus.)
Bacharach is at his most baroque on “Share the Joy,” accenting the ironically dark melody with harpsichord and strings. The single most beautiful item on the album may be “I Might Frighten Her Away,” performed by Jerry Whitman for Peter Finch and Diana Lee for Liv Ullmann. The ballad is set to a gently restrained acoustic guitar part, which serves to bring David’s wistful lyric to the fore: “Seems like I’ve had so little time, all through my life – Maybe that’s why I’ve always been so impatient…I must learn to be patient or I might frighten her away.” Finch/Whitman is echoed by Ullmann/Lee: “Seems like I’ve had just too much time, all through my life – Maybe that’s why I seem to be so unhurried…some things just should be hurried…or they might frighten him away.” The melody builds to a fantastically soaring duet section. The song is a beautiful evocation of character as they discover their connection and what’s holding them back. The graceful orchestration employs strings, flutes and one of the most prominent uses of guitar in the composer’s catalogue. Quite simply, the song transcends the film. (Bacharach collaborated on the film’s orchestrations with Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken.)
Another song for Finch’s character of Richard Conway, “If I Could Go Back,” offers another solidly-written character lyric set to a sensitive melody. Even without the lyrics, it would convey the character’s hesitance, as he questions himself: “Will I find there is really such a thing as piece of mind?” And that melody just takes flight – “And this all can be mine! Why can’t I make myself believe it?” – and never looks back. As composer, Bacharach wasn’t playing on a small canvas but rather matching the lofty intentions of the filmmakers that somehow never translated to the screen. Instead, camp excess instead prevailed. The third of Conway’s songs, “I Come to You,” isn’t quite as strong as the previous two, but the yearning melody feels undeveloped as it clocks in at roughly one minute and thirty seconds’ length. (A clip available on YouTube, below, presents Peter Finch’s original, undubbed vocal.)
Then there are those production numbers! Though Liv Ullmann’s Catherine leads “The World is a Circle,” the most famous song from the score, it’s Bobby Van who shines through with his musical comedy prowess. Bacharach has in recent years started revisiting this song in concert. There’s a reason why: the melody is completely irresistible with the lush orchestration building and building to a dizzying crescendo. David’s lyric is fun and memorable.
Van takes the lead on “Question Me an Answer,” undoubtedly the guiltiest pleasure of the score. Its all too simple lyrics – “Learning can be lots of fun” – are quite silly, and fail in their attempt to be in the mode of Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “learning” songs like “Getting to Know You” and “Do Re Mi.” But the entertaining Van sells it as best as is possible, and again Bacharach supplies felicitous music for the sequence. Most surprisingly, the lyrics heard in the film were significantly altered from David’s first attempts. The original “Question Me” lyrics recorded on the demo were littered with pop culture references, name-checking Greta Garbo, Don Ameche, Dorothy Lamour and Elvis Presley! The music pulls out all of the stops for this production number, with its sly dance interlude. The stop-and-start melody and shifting time signatures are as complicated as anything Bacharach had ever written, proving that he didn’t write “down” when writing for children.
“The Things I Will Not Miss” is another memorably campy sequence, with Sally Kellerman’s Sally and Olivia Hussey’s Maria dancing merrily through a library. But again, the song is captivating, with a killer piano part and a dance arrangement that’s very much of its time, complete with energetic brass and percussion. Still, the lyrics are too prosaic to make any kind of dramatic impression: “Different people look at life from different points of view…” It does succeed in contrasting the two characters’ beliefs. The pretty pop of “Reflections” ends the original LP, and it’s another short song, clocking in at less than two minutes. The simple lyric is set to an offbeat, percolating melody: “Your reflection reflects in everything you do/And everything you do/Reflects on you!”
Bacharach and David’s score is let down by some insufficiently robust singing throughout, odd considering so many of the performers were dubbed! Their work seems to have written for a different project – or projects. But if it’s easy to see the many areas in which the film itself undoubtedly fails, it’s just as easy to appreciate the music on its own considerable merits.
Can the film be viewed with a less cynical eye today? You can find out for yourself on October 4, when Lost Horizon arrives on DVD. It promises to add more than has ever been seen before. The initial pre-order listing mentions an array of songs removed from the final cut: “The Fertility Dance/Living Together”; “Living Together, Growing Together (Reprise)”; “If I Could Go Back”; “Where Knowledge Ends (Faith Begins)”; and “I Come to You.” This would mean that substantially more material has been discovered since the release of the expanded Pioneer laserdisc.
Although this long-awaited DVD may be enough for connoisseurs of both lost musicals and classic pop, we’d really be in Shangri-La if an expanded, complete soundtrack recording would follow. (With the soundtrack controlled by Sony Music through Arista, Bell’s successor, and the film itself owned by Columbia Pictures, another Sony unit, perhaps that isn’t completely implausible. Bacharach’s orchestral underscore is too good to remain languishing in a vault! Are our film score label friends reading this? Hint, hint…) And a DVD release of the television special Burt Bacharach in Shangri-La, guest-starring Bobby Van, Richard Harris and The 5th Dimension would be welcome, too! Alas, that’s for another day and another column. In the meantime, don’t be frightened away from exploring the singular monument of cult cinema that is Ross Hunter’s Lost Horizon.